Guest Column

Before voting on Kent ISD millage, know the facts

April 14, 2017
| By Ben DeGrow |
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On May 2, voters across the Kent Intermediate School District will be asked to approve a 0.9-mill tax hike to boost school funding. It would yield $19.9 million to 20 districts that together spend nearly a billion dollars each year. Before voters dig deeper into their pockets, they should dig deeper into the facts to see if what has been promised really adds up.

The idea of a regional enhancement millage is to give local districts more money. Under such a millage, each district receives extra funds based on how many students it enrolls.

Each of the 20 school districts where the tax is being requested already levy additional taxes on business owners and homeowners to help pay off their respective debts. These taxpayers should be wary of most districts’ claims of poverty or suggestions that the new millage funds will deliver more graduates who are ready for the workforce.

The regional enhancement millage is emerging as a common way to ask for extra revenues, an option created by Michigan’s 1994 Proposal A school finance reform. Wayne RESA became the latest ISD to approve a regional enhancement tax, joining Muskegon and three ISDs that have renewed their own tax: Monroe, Kalamazoo and Midland.

But the approach has a mixed track record of success at the ballot box. Voters from Alpena to the Ann Arbor area have rejected regional enhancement tax proposals in recent years.

Backers of the Kent ISD proposal say more taxes are necessary because districts already have done the hard work of economizing: “West Michigan school districts have taken steps to tighten their belts, make cuts, find efficiencies, reduce staff and consolidate services.” But that leaves out an important part of the story.

Combined operational spending in the 20 Kent ISD districts grew from $10,450 per pupil in 2012 to $11,175 per pupil in 2016. This 7 percent increase has outpaced inflation. Spending trends vary by location, but most of the districts’ spending levels are on the rise.

Enhancing school district cash flow doesn’t necessarily lead to better outcomes for students, though. Last year, the Mackinac Center conducted a rigorous analysis to see what effect financial resources have on achievement results in school buildings. On 27 of 28 different state tests or other academic measurements, there was no relationship between increased spending and additional learning.

The state of Michigan’s own $400,000 education finance study, or adequacy study, does not offer much more hope. That study estimates each additional $1,000 spent per student will make another 1 percent of students capable of achieving at grade level. By this logic, the new millage funds would barely budge achievement. Currently, 48 percent of the region’s fourth-graders and 37 percent of its eighth-graders score proficient in math.

Compared to their peers throughout the state, school districts in the Kent ISD are relatively high performing. The vast majority of area schools meets or beat expectations. Yet, little evidence exists to support the expectation raising taxes will lead to students learning more.

Another problem with the tax proposal is that it would discriminate against certain schools and worsen existing inequities.

In recent years, more families in the Grand Rapids area have opted to enroll their children into public charter schools, but this proposal would neglect them. State law does not allow any of the nearly $20 million raised by the regional enhancement millage to benefit charter students. It would further widen the 12 percent spending gap between local districts, which can request extra local taxes, and charter schools, which cannot.

Rather than focus on further funding increases, lawmakers and district leaders should aim first to embrace reforms that use existing dollars more effectively. For example, fixing an unsustainable, underfunded pension system that absorbs 36 percent of payroll costs would make a truly lasting commitment to students.

While adding a little more to the homeowners’ burden may offer relief to some local public schools, it, at best, would patch over bigger problems that need to be addressed. Residents and business owners need to decide whether that’s worth the cost.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank based in Midland.

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